Picture Book Author Jill Esbaum

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Jill, can you remember the first encouraging comment you received about your writing?

Twelve years ago, I took a beginning class for aspiring children’s writers, and my instructor, a prolific author, read my first picture book manuscript and said, “You ARE going to submit this.” That helped.

What do you most love about the writing life?

The freedom. For the most part, nobody’s telling you what to write, when to write, how to write. You sink or swim on your own. I like that challenge.

What advice would you give writers who are closing in on the 100 rejection mark without an acceptance of any sort?

Every author I know has cringe-worthy manuscripts squirreled away that they once thought were brilliant. You HAVE to learn to look at your own work with a critical eye. That’s tough sometimes, but crucial.

If someone has been continually hitting brick walls, I’d advise them to STOP and back up the truck. Remember, it’s not about the quantity of work you have circulating; it really is the quality that matters. Ideally, we need to submit only those manuscripts that editors will find irresistible. If they can say no, they will.

Oh, yeah. My advice. Select two or three favorite manuscripts and have them professionally critiqued. A fresh perspective is invaluable.

Also, if you’ve never tried writing for magazines, give it a try. Submitting to magazines taught me a lot, and the occasional acceptances made me feel like a “real” writer and gave me the confidence to deal with editors without blathering incoherently (well, sometimes). And don’t fret about selling your work for all rights. Really. The odds that you’ll ever in a million years “turn a magazine story into a picture book” are virtually nil. The two are entirely different animals. Now somebody will write to me to say they did that. 🙂 Tip: Good nonfiction sells like crazy.

How many total stories have you written? Even count those that you’ll never show anybody.

Oh, boy. I’d have to guess….50? I don’t think I have any that I’ve never shown anybody, even the stinkers. Hey, I didn’t KNOW they were stinkers at the time. Over the years, my embarrassment threshold has fallen to the point that I no longer have one.

Do you submit your books via an agent or do you submit on your own?

I have an agent, but I sold my first four books on my own. I signed with her just in time for her to negotiate the fourth. I LOVE not having to worry about where to send something.

Do you break or have you broken any conventional rules of picture book writing?

Yes. For one thing, writers are told not to write in rhyme. Two of my four published pbs rhymers, as are the next two, STANZA and TOM’S TWEET.

Also, I remember how nervous I was about dropping Ste-e-e-eamboat A-Comin’! into the mail, because it was so out of the box. A rhyming, historical mood piece? Yipes! Yet it sold quickly. I’ve since learned that the more unnerved I am about letting an editor see something, the better it’s received. Unique is good.

Were there certain picture books that influenced you as you first pursued publication?

Reading my kids Kevin Henkes’ JULIUS, BABY OF THE WORLD is what inspired me to try writing pbs in the first place. The page where Lily’s up a tree, shouting to a passing pregnant woman that she’ll live to regret the baby under her shirt was so … irreverent and hilarious. I wanted to do that – write books for kids that adults would enjoy reading.

I saw that Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin’! was awarded the Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year award. Did you expect to receive such great recognition with that story or was it just icing on the cake?

Well, actually it was one of many “best” books on Bank Street’s annual list. Still, pretty cool. It WAS the only picture awarded best juvenile fiction by Friends of American Writers, a Chicago group. Very cool to fly to Chicago to speak at their luncheon.

Your upcoming book Stanza looks fun. Where did you get the inspiration to write about a poetry writing canine?

I wanted to write a book in which a dog was the main character. I wanted to set it in the city but write it in rhyme – in the style of an old west gunslinger ballad. As in most cases, one thing led to another, and it took on a life of its own. I’m very excited about Stanza. The interior art is so fun, and the cover is AMAZING. There’s a passage in which he’s hiding in an alley late one night, struggling to write a jingle (for a dog food company’s contest) that perfectly illustrates my writing process:

He scribbled and scrawled.



He wadded up papers.

He pondered.

He paced.

He scoured his thesaurus.

He struggled for rhymes.

He started from scratch at least eighty-two times.

Yep, that’s me.

We are both great people of faith, by that, I mean we both believe the Chicago Cubs can do good in any given year. Let me ask you this, which will happen first, you winning a Caldecott Award or the Cubs winning the World Series and which would you prefer?

Now, Brian. If you’re REALLY a Cubs fan, you KNOW I have to go with the Cubbies or take responsibility for jinxing them in ‘09. Although, I have been considering taking a drawing class….

Can you share with us something about you nobody else may know?

Um…I have big feet? My dad used to tell me, “Well, honey, you won’t blow over.”

I want to give a big thanks to Jill for a wonderful interview and my apologies for dredging up that big feet memory

We hope you’ve enjoyed our interview with picture book author Jill Esbaum.

Here’s Jill’s latest book. Buy it today!


There’s a slobbery thug in town, and his name is Stanza. He bullies everybody. He eats chicken pot pie. And . . . he writes poetry. On the sly. At night. Because he’s extremely afraid his bully brothers will find out. But Stanza doesn’t let that stop him from entering one of his poems into a jingle contest. Does he win? Well, what if he did . . . not?

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